Diagnosis: A Syndrome That's Got Legs

Restless legs syndrome can keep you up at night and raise the risk of heart disease.

By Greg Isaacson, published November 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A nightmare for many, restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a heart risk, too. Recent studies have shown that RLS—a neurological condition marked by an irresistible urge to move your legs—may raise the risk of heart disease, especially for the elderly. The periodic leg movements that plague many people during sleep release adrenaline and cause repetitive boosts in blood pressure, which can damage the cardiovascular system and lead to chronic hypertension.

RLS sufferers already have it hard enough without worrying about their hearts. Occasional tingling in the legs is harmless, but uncontrollable nighttime jerking can destroy sleep—and strain marriages. The good news is that research teams in Germany and Iceland have recently found a genetic basis for the condition, which may pave the way for new treatment ideas. The road to a cure could be long, though, so don't wait up.

Putting your foot down: How to fight RLS

  • Do things to take your mind off your legs. When you have to stay seated, consider diversions like video games or a good, engrossing talk.
  • Walk, stretch, or take a bath. For many, moderate exercise seems to improve RLS, and a bath—hot or cold—may make a difference, too.
  • Mind what you eat. Anemia and iron deficiency can make RLS worse. Ask your doctor about iron, vitamin B-12, or folate supplements.
  • Consider taking the FDA-approved drugs Requip or Mirapex.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene. Go to sleep at the same time every night, including weekends. And stop guzzling caffeine.